Cover image for Loot : a novel
Loot : a novel
Elkins, Aaron J.
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Publication Information:
New York : Morrow, 1999.
Physical Description:
vi, 354 pages ; 24 cm
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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In April 1945, the Nazis, reeling and near defeat, frantically work to hide the huge store of art treasures that Hitler looted from Europe. Truck convoys loaded with the cultural wealth of the Western world pour in an unending stream into the compound of the vast Altaussee salt mine high in the Austrian Alps. But with the Allies closing in, the vaunted efficiency of the Nazis has broken down. At Altaussee, all is tumult and confusion. In the commotion a single truck, its driver, and its priceless load of masterpieces vanish into a mountain snowstorm.

Author Notes

Former anthropologist Aaron Elkins has been writing mysteries and thrillers since 1982.

He won an Edgar award for Old Bones, as well as an Agatha (with his wife Charlotte), and a Nero Wolfe Award. His major continuing series features forensic anthropologist-detective Gideon Oliver, "the skeleton detective".

Aaron speaks often at professional conferences, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, has written for Smithsonian magazine, and is the author of several short stories. His work, which has been published in over a dozen languages, include: NASTY BREAKS (with his wife Charlotte Elkins), MAKE NO BONES, A DECEPTIVE CLARITY, SKELETON DANCE, THE DARK PLACE, and Little Tiny Teeth.

He and his wife Charlotte live in Washington.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

As World War II winds down, a truck carrying priceless art stolen by the Nazis vanishes from its convoy. What happens to the loot? The story quickly jumps to present-day Boston, where ex-curator Ben Revere gets drawn into the decades-old mystery when one of the stolen paintings resurfaces in the pawnshop of his elderly Russian friend. It quickly becomes clear that anyone connected with the painting is in grave danger. Revere travels to many of the great old cities in Europe in an attempt to figure out what happened to the paintings after the war, why they are turning up now, and who is killing people to find them. The compelling plot alone could carry the novel, but what makes Loot one of the most uniquely fascinating crime novels in recent months are the incredible history lessons Elkins imparts--not just about art but also about war, cities, and humanity. The author's extensive research is apparent from the first page. Not only does he know his stuff, but he conveys it in a lively, compelling style that would hook even the most reluctant reader. Manna for those who love art and just plain irresistible for anyone else. --Jenny McLarin

Publisher's Weekly Review

April 1945: the German war machine is collapsing, and the Nazis are frantically crowding their stolen art treasures into a secret salt mine in Altaussee, Austria. In the chaos, a truck from one of the convoys disappears. The driver has deserted, hoping to negotiate asylum with the advancing American forces. But a blizzard sets him off course, and he and his loot are captured by a brutal Russian patrol instead. Boston, 50 years later: a gorgeous painting by the Spanish master Velázquez turns up in the pawnshop ("CA$H IN A FLA$H") of the surprisingly prim Simeon Pawlovsky. Suspicious of the thug who brought it in ("a big scar here, half an ear missing, a busted nose"), Simeon calls his friend Ben Revere, a retired art historian and curator who likes baseball and occasionally moonlights for the police. The next day, Simeon is murdered during an attempt to steal the painting. Motivated by guilt and encouraged by Simeon's fiery niece, Revere goes on a whirlwind search for the provenance of the Velázquez and the whereabouts of the rest of the art aboard the missing truck. In the process, Revere is hired by a wealthy, aging count in Vienna, implicated in the murder of an underworld figure in Budapest and chased by a Russian mafia assassin all over Europe. Revere's combination of high intellect and low pretense makes him an engaging sleuth, and Elkin's (Twenty Blue Devils, etc.) cultural and historical details add savor to this engaging, fast-paced novel. Rights: Karpfinger Agency. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In a seedy pawnshop in Boston, sometime curator and art detective Benjamin Revere stumbles upon what he thinks may be a genuine Velásquez painting, part of a missing truckload of old masters stolen by the Nazis in April 1945. Meanwhile, the old pawnbroker is brutally murdered, so Revere must solve two mysteries. His pursuit takes him to the grand cities of Europe, where he interviews claimants of the great paintings and is chased by Mafia thugs. Many who have sought to reclaim the paintings have died, and Revere himself nearly does when an aged Mafia don lures him into a Swiss bank vault for a peek at the long-lost loot. Edgar Award winner Elkins (Twenty Blue Devils, Mysterious, 1997) uses his low-key narrative voice, personably erudite central characters, and historically intriguing plot to enthrall readers. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/98.]‘Susan Clifford, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Boston, Massachusetts, the Present So far, so good. Boston two, Seattle one. But with the Mariners due up in the ninth with the meat of their order--Rodriguez, Griffey, and Martinez--I was beginning to feel that late-inning sense of impending doom so familiar to Red Sox true believers.     When the telephone chirped, it was almost a relief. The phone was in the kitchen, the TV was in the living room. If I got up to answer it, at least I wouldn't have to see the actual bloodshed. On the other hand, who was there that I wanted to talk to? It was a toss-up, your classic case of avoidance-avoidance conflict, but when Rodriguez promptly smashed a screaming double down the left-field line, it tipped the balance. I put down the carton of leftover, take-out lo mein I'd been making an early dinner of, hauled myself up from the sofa, and lumped off in my socks to get the phone.     "Hello?"     "Ben, is that you? Benjamin Revere?"     "Simeon?"     "Yes, that's right, Simeon." He sounded pleased at having his voice recognized. If he'd had any idea of the pathetic size of my social circle, he wouldn't have been so flattered. Besides, how many of them had Russian accents?     Simeon Pawlovsky and I had known each other almost two years. Now in his late seventies, he had left Russia in the sixties, and for the past three decades he had owned a pawnshop on Washington Street, in the grittiest part of Boston's South End. I had first run into him while working on a case for the police department--I'm an art historian by training, an honest-to-God, certifiable expert, and as such I do some consulting, not only for private individuals but once in a while for the police or for the Customs Department. In this particular case, the hunt for a stolen Courbet had led back after many a twist to Simeon's shop. Simeon had been extremely helpful; with his assistance the painting had gotten back to its rightful owner and some of the bad guys had been put away, even if not for very long. The old man had gotten a bang out of it, and since then, whenever a piece of "suspicious" art came into his shop, he had called me. The calls had rarely panned out into anything, but we had become friends of a sort, and occasionally, if I happened to be in the neighborhood--his shop was only a five-minute drive from the Museum of Fine Arts--I dropped in to sit on a stool behind the counter with him and pass the time. Sometimes, if it was a nice day, he'd lock up the store and put up one of those little clock signs showing when he'd be back, and we'd walk around the block. He'd have his face tilted up the whole time, as if he couldn't get enough sun.     "What am I hearing, baseball?" he asked now. "On a day like this you're sitting in the dark watching a baseball game?"     "I'm not in the dark, Simeon."     "Baseball at four o'clock on a Monday afternoon," he said in quiet dismay.     If he only knew, I thought. I'd watched a ball game Sunday afternoon, too. And Saturday. No, that was wrong; on Saturday it had been golf, a thought that momentarily gave me pause. Baseball was one thing, but does a normal human being watch golf for three and a half hours straight? If I didn't get my act together, pretty soon I was going to wind up spending my afternoons in front of beach volleyball or ice dancing. It could happen.     "Well, you're in your store, aren't you?" I said lamely. "Is that so much better?"     "Yes, but I have to be here. I have a business to run. Tell me, what's your excuse?"     Well, yes, there was the rub.     I sighed. "Simeon, what can I do for you?"     "Ben, I took in a painting yesterday. You think you could have a look at it?"     "What is it?"     "I-- Well, I wouldn't want to say. I think it's valuable. I'm ninety percent sure it's stolen."     "But what is it? I mean, Impressionist, Modern--"     "It could be seventeenth century, could be early eighteenth," he said. "Spanish would be my guess." Then, too excited to keep still, "Ben, it's a wonderful picture, it should be in a museum. I have it in front of me right now. I think--well, if you want to know, I think it could be by Velázquez. That's my opinion, for what it's worth."     For what it was worth. The last time it had been a "Giorgione" that turned out to be a murky landscape grimy and shellac-encrusted enough to be centuries old, but wasn't.     "Uh-huh," I said. "And what makes you think that?"     "For one thing, there's a label on the back that says so."     "A label? There's no signature?"     "No, just a label on the back."     "Simeon, anyone can stick a label--"     "Benjamin, for God's sake, give me a little credit, I wasn't born yesterday, I'm telling you, it's a real work of art. In my opinion--"     "And someone walked into your shop and pawned it, just like that."     "Yes, just like that. What do you think, they make appointments ahead of time to come here? A Russian he was, not in this country very long--"     "How much did you give him for it?"     "He wanted a thousand dollars."     I laughed. "He took a thousand dollars for a genuine Velázquez?"     "He took a hundred dollars. I'm a businessman. I don't run this place for the entertainment value. Besides, I didn't like his looks. The minute he came in, I knew something wasn't right."     "What's it a picture of, Simeon?"     He took his time. "A man," he said at last.     "A man. Well, that's helpful."     "Dressed in black."     "A man dressed in black. That certainly narrows it down--"     "Listen, Ben, instead of wisecracks, why not just look at it? How about tomorrow, can you come over?"     I hesitated, interested but doubtful. There were only a hundred or so authenticated Velázquez paintings still around, mostly in the world's museums, but at least twice that many were known to have been painted by him and then lost at one point or another over the last 350 years. Every now and then one of them really did turn up, although a pawnshop was a pretty unlikely place for it, and Simeon wasn't the art connoisseur he liked to imagine he was. Still, I couldn't call myself much of an art historian if dreams of finding and authenticating one of them weren't already dancing in my head.     "Yes, okay, sure, I'll come over," I said. "I'll try to get there on the early side."     "Fine, I'll be here all day."     In the living room the announcer was recapping what I'd missed: "... so the Red Sox certainly have their work cut out for them in their half of the ninth. With explosive two-run homers by Griffey and Buhner and a five-run Mariner lead ..."     In other words, the usual. I turned off the TV, picked up what was left of the lo mein, and went into the study to see what I had on Velázquez. Chapter Two "Where my mornings go is a continuing source of wonderment. Usually I let the sun wake me--one of the genuine pleasures of not having an honest job--then make myself coffee, read the Globe over cold cereal (or eggs over easy if I'm feeling unusually ambitious), take a shower, and then--well, that's the part I'm not sure about; turn on Classics in the Morning on WGBH, catch up on my reading, look at my mail--hell, I don't know what I do.     In any case, it wasn't until two-fifteen in the afternoon that I got out of my car in front of Simeon's shop on Washington Street. On one side of it was a warehouselike discount-furniture store, on the other a closed-down Thai take-out restaurant, its windows covered by graffiti-coated plywood boards. Between these two neighbors, Simeon's pawnshop was just what anyone would expect. CA$H IN A FLA$H!!! proclaimed the peeling metal sign above the entrance. FAST, FRIENDLY, CONFIDENTIAL!!! OPEN 8-5 MON-SAT. ESTAB. 1970. Additional encouragements, in red neon tubing, hung in the windows: BUY*SELL*TRADE*LAYAWAY*--MONEY TO LOAN--WE SELL FIRST QUALITY MERCHANDISE AT LOW, LOW PRICES!!!     The window bays were stuffed with every kind of junk imaginable, and then some: a row of ukuleles strung on a rod; electric drills; cameras seemingly from the dawn of photography; VCRs; fishing rods; a signed photograph of Ginger Rogers; a three-D movie projector; a set of strobe lights (A ONCE IN A LIFETIME BARGAIN--$39!!!); a pair of white, forlornly elegant women's ice skates, much used; chain saws; rings; pearl necklaces; even a folding electric wheelchair.     To get into the place I walked through the open metal accordion gate that folded across the front when the shop was closed, through a vestibule in which a rusting generator and a scuzzy old moped were chained to the foundation (as they'd been since the first time I was there), and through a second open folding gate that Simeon pulled across the front door and the rear of the bays when he closed down for the night. The store had been broken into several times in the eighties, and Simeon had learned to take precautions. In addition to the gates there were a cheesy-looking, red-eyed "video camera" that oscillated back and forth in one corner of the room, surely fooling not even the most gullible thief, and a convex mirror mounted up near the ceiling behind the counter, which gave Simeon a view of the shop when his back was turned. And on his skinny hip was the usual Colt revolver (empty) that looked as if it might have been pawned by Wyatt Earp himself.     When I came in, Simeon was methodically counting out five-dollar bills--an old-fashioned thumb-licker, he was--for an aged, birdlike woman in a track suit and Velcro-fastened jogging shoes.     Simeon wasn't much bigger than she was; maybe five-five and a hundred and twenty pounds, a neatly groomed, small-boned, gray-haired old man, not at all the sort that went with all those exclamation points out front; a bit stiff, even prim, in his movements, and dressed as always in a black suit, a white shirt, and a nondescript, tightly knotted tie; a businesslike outfit except for that six-gun, which he insisted on wearing on a gun belt strapped around his waist on the outside of his jacket. ("If I wear it underneath, no one will see, so what's the point?")     "Thirty-five ... forty," he was saying, putting the bills into a used white envelope. His glasses, rimmed in thick black plastic, were hiked up onto his forehead.     "There you are, Mrs. Kapinsky."     "I thank you, Mr. Pawlovsky."     It was hard to keep from smiling. I might have been listening to the start of a vaudeville routine.     "Now, don't you forget to come back and redeem it," Simeon told her, dryly playful. "I'd hate to have to sell this beautiful piece of quality jewelry."     "You better not if you know what's good for you," she said with a waggle of her finger. This was a routine, I realized; they were old hands at it. She slipped the red cardboard pawn ticket into a zippered pocket. "I'll see you next week for sure, you can count on it." On the way out she gave me a brisk nod, one business client to another.     "You see this ring?" Simeon said. "Every month when her check runs out, she comes in and leaves it here for forty dollars, and every month, like clockwork, when she gets her check the next week, she comes back and gets it out for forty-five dollars. Better than borrowing from a bank."     "Pawlovsky's Loans, the poor people's ATM," I said.     "Absolutely," said Simeon earnestly. "You got it exactly right. Not everybody has a big bank account. Not everybody can make it from one check to the next."     He tied a tag to the ring and put it in a drawer behind the glass-topped counter. "You know, at first she used to show up lugging this big orbital sander--her husband was a roof-framer before he died. It must have weighed thirty pounds, and you saw how skinny she is? So I said to her, look, why not trade the sander for a ring? It weighs next to nothing. So she did, and now she carries it in on her little finger. A wonderful person; for twenty years she's been coming in here. Come, let me show you what I have."     He grabbed the cane that he kept hooked over the counter--Simeon's right foot was twisted inward, his knee stiff, so that he moved with a rocking, foot-dragging limp--and led the way up two wooden steps to the little foyer between the shop and his living quarters. Beyond were a kitchen, bathroom, and combination bedroom-sitting room, all facing through barred windows onto a shared central courtyard with tired brown grass, a bench, and a few rhododendrons that hadn't been pruned or fed in a decade. Only once before had I been invited back here. We'd had tea at the kitchen table, and we'd both been awkward and constrained. To get to the kitchen it had been necessary to walk through the old man's shabby bedroom, with his worn felt slippers beside the bed. It had made me feel like an intruder, as if I were seeing a part of his life that I wasn't meant to. Simeon had been embarrassed, too; the invitation hadn't been repeated.     This time we stopped in the foyer itself, where an ancient monster of a safe sat on a reinforced section of the floor, filling half the cubicle. THE MACHINISTS' INSURANCE CO., it said in faded gilt lettering, barely readable against the black metal, 342 WYONA STREET, BROOKLYN, N.Y. Simeon knelt with difficulty, absentmindedly shoving his rigid leg to one side with his hands, and worked the combination. When the heavy door swung smoothly open--apparently he kept it oiled--he slid out the only object inside, an unframed picture on a rectangular piece of Formica-coated wood, reverently carried it back to the counter, and stepped aside to let me have a look.     It was about two feet by three, a dark, sober portrait on a simple, brown background. Across the bottom was a line of spidery, elegant script: " El Conde de Torrijos ."     Simeon looked at me. "Well?"     I let out my breath. A man, yes. Dressed in black, yes. In the somber fashion of the seventeenth-century Spanish court, as Simeon had implied. But no wonder he'd been moved. The pensive, melancholy face of the balding, aging aristocrat with the white goatee--the Count of Torrijos--gazed at me with an immediacy--a living, real presence--that only a few painters had managed to capture more than once or twice in their lives. You knew at once that, despite the quaintness of costume, or trappings, or pose, this was a real person you were looking at--or rather, was looking at you--and you couldn't help feeling that if you could only look at him long enough, or in the right way, you might make a connection, an actual human connection, over all those years. Rembrandt, above all, had had that magical gift. Rubens. Van Dyck. Vermeer. Holbein. Copley. Hals.     And Velázquez.     Now, don't jump to conclusions, I told myself, leaning over the picture. There are a lot of things this could be--a painting made by an apprentice in some seventeenth-century artist's workshop--possibly even Velázquez's--or a copy by a talented student, or an outright forgery done in the nineteenth or even twentieth century, smoked, and baked, and crackled to look old.     No, not a modern forgery; too painstaking and too good for that. Besides, I could spot a few signs of antique restoration here and there; the right cuff and an area near the elbow had been touched up, as well as the region around a small, repaired gash in the background--all three of them exactly the sort of shoddy jobs that had been all too common in the nineteenth century. You just don't see forgers who go to that kind of trouble to make a painting look like the real thing. Not when it's so much easier and more effective to buy (or steal) a picture by some unknown but reasonably competent seventeenth-century journeyman and simply replace the signature with that of the artist of your choice. That way, assuming you'd picked your painter with a little care, the materials, the techniques, even the frame, would all be right for the time and place. The only fake part would be the signature.     This one didn't even have a signature, and in a way that was the most convincing element of all. One thing you could count on with a fake was a nice, legible signature. Without one, even the most beautifully forged Rubens or Rembrandt might wind up being relegated to a generic "School of Rubens" or "Studio of Rembrandt," and what self-respecting forger is going to settle for that when a discreet little "PP Rubens" or "RHL" (Rembrandt Harmenszoon Leidensis) in the lower-right corner would increase its selling price a hundred times, say from twenty thousand to two million dollars?     So whatever it was, Velázquez or otherwise, it was almost certainly old. In good shape, though. Other than the holes and creases around the edges where it had been tacked to its stretcher, a little nearby flaking of the paint, and the repaired gash, the canvas had suffered nothing beyond the normal damage of time. I went over it inch by inch with the lighted magnifying lens I'd brought, gently touching it here and there with a finger, even rubbing a bit of saliva over it in one place to check the varnish, both of which were capital crimes if discovered (but perpetrated all the same by anyone evaluating a work of art--in private, at any rate).     The more I examined it, the more I leaned toward Velázquez. The dark, dramatic colors, the ochers and earth tones of the deceptively plain background, the detached yet sympathetic way the subject was portrayed--all shouted Velázquez ... or possibly, to be fair, one of Velázquez's better students. But the technique, the actual application of the paint, was another thing, and it would be an extraordinary student who could match that feathery brushwork, so different from that of his contemporaries and so far ahead of its time. Two hundred years later Manet, himself one of the founders of Impressionism, would credit Velázquez as his own inspiration.     There was more: the characteristic use of a soft-hair blending brush to tone down outlines, and the expert, patient application of layer upon layer of glazes. Outside of the Venetian school--Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione--Velázquez was the undisputed master of glazes, sometimes lathering on as many as thirty layers.     In addition, there were pale vertical streaks, visible through pigment that had become transparent with time, that showed where the artist's brush had been wiped clean on the as-yet-unpainted canvas, a habit for which Velázquez had been criticized in his own time. He was also famous for his pentimenti , his changes of mind as he worked, and these, too, probably invisible for the first couple of hundred years, now showed as ghosts through the time-thinned overpainting. The old count's collar had been made smaller, his left hand had been repositioned, a book in the foreground, originally closed, had been opened.     "Well?" Simeon demanded. He was practically hopping with impatience. "So?"     I straightened up. "Simeon, this time I think you just might have something here."     "Ah," he said with deep satisfaction.     "But I'm not sure yet. Let's look at the back."     Gingerly, I lifted the stiff canvas by its edges and turned it over, holding it so that the painted surface didn't touch anything. There were the usual things you'd expect to find on the back of an old painting--flyspecks, smudges, cryptic scribbles, and randomly placed symbols of one kind or another: R-B, GRA, Osuna 127/6, S2 , a star within a circle, and a monogram that said either TC or CT , all in faded ink or pencil, plus a couple of dull, black rubber-stamped markings in pointy, angular Gothic lettering: ERR and ne-2 . In addition there were two pale fingerprints (Velázquez's?) in ochre pigment, some scraps of glue where labels had once been pasted on, and two labels still attached, one large, one small.     The big one, in the center, was a dealer's sticker on expensive paper: Pierre Severac, Paris. 13, Boulevard de la Madeleine. Peintures Françaises et Etrangères . Turn of the century, from the look of it. The smaller label was made of cheap, thin paper torn from a perforated roll and unevenly typed in faint red ink. Velázquez, Graf Torrijos , it said. Paris, Dez. 1942 .     Simeon gestured at the "Velázquez." "See?"     "Mm," I said, and stared at the faded tag of paper for a long time. "You know, this painting's had a bit of history, Simeon."     "History, what do you mean, history?"     "The label's in German. You didn't mention that."     He leaned over it, bringing his glasses down from his brow. "Who cares what language? All I could see was that `Velázquez.' What difference--" He looked at me. "Ah, I see what you mean. The Nazis."     "Yes, the Nazis."     In December 1942 Paris had been an occupied city for two years, and for all of that time the Germans had been busy plundering, confiscating, or coercing works of art from Jewish families, from the homes of Frenchmen who had fled the city, and from other "enemies of the Reich." It was a subject I knew something about. The dissertation I'd written for my Ph.D. in art history not so many years before had been called The Ethics of Plunder: Theft and Restitution of Cultural Property in Time of War . Naturally enough, a big part of it had dealt with Germany's looting of art during World War II and the Allies' remarkable postwar program to restore it to its owners. It was a subject in which I continued to be interested, delivering an occasional paper and serving on panels from time to time.     And so I knew all too well that the tag on the back of the Velázquez was part of their inventory-control system, and that the ERR stamped not far from it, also in the black Gothic letters still in use in Germany in the 1940s, was their proprietary imprint; it stood for Einsatzstab-Reichsleiter Rosenberg , Adolf Hitler's personal art-looting machine. Its director, Alfred Rosenberg, had operated with a simple mandate from the Führer: He was to see to "the transportation to Germany of cultural goods that are deemed by him to be valuable." In other words, the wholesale plunder of Europe's art. From museums, from individuals, from governments. Rosenberg's disciplined thugs had applied themselves mightily, amassing the greatest collection of art in the history of the world. In Eastern Europe the methods had been brutal and direct. With Poles and Czechs officially classified as Untermenschlich , a subhuman, their property was technically--and conveniently--"ownerless." The jackboots simply walked in and tore it off the walls.     France, being officially inhabited by fellow human beings (Jews, Communists, Gaullists, and others naturally excepted), was a more delicate matter, calling for methods that were less direct, but no less brutal. Here, "purchase" was the method of choice, which resulted in a mountain of legalisms but amounted in the end to the same thing: Victims had nothing to say in the matter. Those who protested were "persuaded." Those who refused to be "persuaded" died or disappeared. The ERR made off with what they wanted, and usually "paid" (when they paid at all) in Occupation francs, the funny money of the day.     And they had wanted El Conde de Torrijos .     "These things the Germans stole," Simeon said, frowning, "they had to give them back after the war, didn't they?"     "Most of them, yes. That is, the Americans and the British ran a huge program getting them back to the rightful owners. But ... Simeon, you said this guy, the one who brought it in, was Russian, didn't you?"     "That's right, Russian. So?"     "Well, I was just thinking. You know, the Russians saw things differently, and almost all the Nazi loot they got their hands on disappeared behind the Iron Curtain after the war and never showed up again. Until lately, that is. Now, with an active mafia in Russia, and wide-open borders, pieces are starting to turn up on the black market. Could be this is one of them? Of course, there are a lot of other possibilities--"     But Simeon had seized on this one. He nodded, his dark eyes alight. "Ah, I knew he was a gangster, a desperado. A little runt he was, but a real tough guy, a brawler, you know?" He made a growling sound and put a hand up to his right cheek. "A big scar here, half an ear missing, a busted nose--"     "This was someone you never saw before?"     "Never," Simeon said, staring again at the painting. "You know, I get a lot of greenhorns in here. They ask around and people tell them Pawlovsky is the one to go to. And it's true, I like to help people from the old country. But this one I didn't trust from the minute he walked in. In the first place, he tries to tell me he's a Jew--to get on my good side, you know--but, Benjamin, if that man was a Jew, then I'm a Seminole Indian. A Jew that gets into brawls? A Jew with hair like it came off a haystack? Brodsky, he said his name was, but he had no papers, no identification, nothing."     "An illegal, you think?"     Simeon shrugged. "He had a story, they all have stories. Technically I'm not supposed to accept anything from someone with no identification--you can understand why--but in this case, once I saw ..." He gestured at the picture.     "Of course. You did the right thing."     "What now?" He hesitated. "Should I call the police?"     "Would you like me to do that for you?" "Please," he said with visible relief. He was like most expatriate Russians in that regard. Dealing with the police didn't come naturally to him. "Simeon, how did he get it here? Was it rolled up?"     "No, he had it in a valise."     I looked at the picture again. "Must have been a pretty big one."     "It was. One of those old canvas ones with flowers on it, all beat up, with leather straps around it, you know the kind? And he just walks right in with it and starts in with this long story about his uncle, and his sister-in-law, and how he needs the money to settle an accident claim--"     I was only half listening. "Look, I need to do a few more things before we contact the police. I want to make sure we know what we're talking about. Do you have a tape measure?"     "A yardstick."     "Good enough. And how about a camera? Do you have a camera?"     "Do I have a camera," he said, taking his cane and heading for a corner of the shop. "What a question." In a moment he brought back a Polaroid with a tag attached and handed it to me.     "Does it have film in it?"     Simeon made a face. "What, do I look that dumb?"     The bell on the front door jingled, and a man in a suit peeked in.     "Can I help you with something?" Simeon called.     "Hallo. Ey vwawn buy vwiolyin," he said in the slow, forceful, but barely understandable accent of a newcomer determined to show his command of his recently learned language even if no one can understand what he's talking about. Another of Simeon's greenhorns, apparently. "For nyephew."     "Fine, come in," Simeon said. "I'll come out there and show you what I have. A looker, not a buyer," he murmured to me, unhooking his cane from the counter. "He won't buy anything, never in a million years."     I took half a dozen photographs of the painting, front and back, and then used the wooden yardstick to measure it while they developed: thirty-seven inches by twenty-five inches. On the small side for Velázquez, but within his normal range. One of the photos came out fuzzy, and I retook it.     In the meantime the man had left without his violin, promising to return later with his nephew.     "What did I tell you?" Simeon said. He turned once more to the painting. "So what now?"     "Now I want go on over to the staff library at the museum and check a few things. But first I need to make a phone call."     Simeon pointed to the cordless telephone on the counter. "Help yourself. You want something cold to drink?"     "Coke?"     "Iced tea?"     "Sounds good. Not too sweet, though."     "Too late, it's already made."     Simeon went back to his kitchen. I used my calling card to telephone CIAT, the Center for the Investigation of Art Theft in New York, with which I'd worked a few times. CIAT maintained a database of all the current known stolen art in the world--at any one time a staggering eighty thousand items, give or take a couple of thousand.     I described the picture to Christine Valle de Leon, CIAT's director and an old friend, and promised to fax her the photos as soon as I could. Christie, brisk and businesslike, told me she'd get back to me within a day or two.     I hung up as Simeon came in with the iced tea. We stood looking silently at the painting and sipping the supersweetened liquid. When Simeon drank hot tea, which he always had from a glass, he sucked it through a sugar cube held between his teeth and replaced with another, and then another, as each one dissolved. When he had iced tea, he simply dumped in about half a pound of sugar to start, tempering it with squeezed lemon. Actually, as long as it didn't come as a complete surprise, I didn't find it all that bad.     "I guess I'll head over to the library now," I said, putting down my drained glass. "I'll swing by when I'm done and let you know what I find out."     "Good," he said absently. "Five o'clock is when I close up, so if you come back after that, rattle the gate and I'll let you in. Or maybe I should just leave it open for you."     "Close it," I said. "In fact, maybe you ought to lock things up right now."     "And my customers, what about them? Ah, Benjamin, you'll never be a businessman. Listen, what about the police? I thought you were going to call them."     "I will, but I'd rather have just a little more information before we bring them in. Look, I really think this is a remarkable piece of art you have here, Simeon. Wouldn't it be better to put it someplace more secure? I could drop it off at the museum for you. I know the people there. They'll hold it for us."     "No, I don't think so. How long you going to be gone?"     "An hour. Two at most."     "For two hours, I think we can take a chance. Here's a painting that Hitler himself wanted and couldn't get, and now, all this time later, here it is right in front of me, in my own shop, for me to look at for my own pleasure. I want to take it in the kitchen, pour myself a glass of beer, and sit down with it at the table and think about what a funny world it is. I'm entitled to that much, don't you think so?"     I smiled. "I suppose you are at that, Simeon."     "Give me half an hour to enjoy the experience. Then I'll put it in the safe until you get here, I promise."     "But what if this Brodsky comes back in the meantime to take it out of hock? You'd have to give it to him."     "Him, he's not coming back."     I didn't think so either.     "Well, there's the conservation angle to think about. At the museum they regulate the temperature and humidity, they--"     "What are you telling me, that two hours here is going to hurt it? You think people have been regulating the temperature and humidity every day for the last three hundred years?"     I capitulated. "Okay, but tonight, later, it goes into the museum, right? You really can't keep something like this in the shop, Simeon. You can't treat it like--"     "I heard you, I heard you. Don't nag. That's a bad habit you're developing."     "If it is by Velázquez, we're talking about millions of dollars here, Simeon."     "No, you're talking about millions of dollars. Me, I got exactly one hundred bucks out on it. What's the big deal?"     "I'll talk to you later," I said, laughing, "as soon as I have something to tell you."     "Sure, sure. Listen, Ben ..." he said tentatively, hardly his usual manner. "I'm going for dinner with my niece tomorrow night. There's a new Russian restaurant in Brighton that's pretty good, they say. I think ... I've been thinking for a while that you and Alex would get along. So I thought maybe, you know, if you weren't doing anything anyway ..."     It surprised me on two counts. First, unless you counted that awkward tea in his kitchen, Simeon, despite his warmth whenever I was there, had never before made a social overture that went beyond "Drop in next time you're around." And second, not once had he ever referred to relatives. It was startling to suddenly think of him as not just an independent old man who lived in three rooms behind a pawnshop but as someone with a family. Did his niece call him Uncle Simeon? Did he have nephews, too? Brothers, sisters? Even children, perhaps, that he had once dandled on his knee?     It was almost like the feeling I'd had when I looked at The Count of Torrijos : Well, what do you know, the guy had an actual past, an actual life. For a moment it embarrassed me that I'd never once taken the trouble to learn anything about Simeon's world, but then what did he know about mine? Not much. Nothing.     "Gee, I'm sorry, Simeon, I'm afraid I'm tied up," I said, not knowing why I did, because of course I wasn't tied up. "Maybe another time."     "Sure," Simeon said good-humoredly. "Maybe." Copyright © 1999 Aaron Elkins. All rights reserved.